[REPOST: The Caravel] New French Education Policy Prompts Fair Access Debate

This article was originally written for the Caravela student-run international affairs newspaper affiliated with Georgetown University. With permission from the Caravel’s Publisher, I am reposting my article here to share with all of you.

I had the amazing opportunity to sit down a professor at Sciences Po Bordeaux to discuss the recent changes to French higher education and their impact on students. If you’re interested in exploring the differences between US and French higher education, I highly encourage you to give this a read!

In February, French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration introduced a series of higher education reforms, which are set to go into effect this summer. The new laws, collectively called ORE and commonly referred to as Vidal’s law (having been first proposed by Minister for Higher Education Frédérique Vidal), introduce a selective admissions process to public universities to correct the imbalance between the limited number of places at a given university and the number of students who seek to enroll.

According to Grégory Champeaud, a professor at Sciences Po Bordeaux and a history and geography teacher at the Fernand Deguin School in Merignac, the new law is part of a broader effort to introduce more competition to the public university system in France; the reforms were first launched under former-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration. However, a selective admissions process has never been successfully implemented before.

“In 1986, they tried to introduce [selectivity into the admissions process].  There was a huge demonstration,” Champeaud said. “It was millions of people in the streets, millions of students and secondary-school students, too…. And, [the government]  had to stop [the implementation]  because they knew it wouldn’t work.”

Despite a history of resistance to admissions selectivity, which in 2018 has manifested itself in a series of demonstrations and occupations of university buildings throughout the country, Macron’s administration has gone ahead with the project. Students graduating high school in 2018 will become the first cohort to undergo the new selection process.

The pre-ORE system allowed all French students who obtain a passing score of 10/20 or higher on the Baccalaureate exam (Bac), a mandatory test for all graduating high school students, to enter public university automatically. The universities that receive more candidates than their classroom capacity allows rely on a draw system, selecting the students who will be able to enroll at random.

With the new law, the French government hopes to amend this often-criticized system of admissions and to reduce the first-year drop-out rate, which currently hovers around 60 percent. Using a new digital platform called Parcoursup, the universities will review the profiles of all high school candidates seeking enrollment, and, based on various criteria such as previous training and skills, extend admission offers.

“Last year in August…there were thousands of students who didn’t know where they would go because there were no places in university for them,” Champeaud explained, reflecting on the failures of the old admissions system. “Around the year 2000 in France, there was a kind of baby boom. So it means that since 2013 the number of students is increasing dramatically, but the number of places in universities doesn’t change, the number of teachers doesn’t change. And, that’s the problem.”

Proportion of high school graduates with a Baccalaureate in a generation (1995-2016). Source: French Ministry of Higher Education, Research, and Innovation

However, the proposed changes to the admissions process would place greater demands on high school teachers, who are now required to fill out paperwork for each of their students to describe their qualifications to universities.

“I can see how teachers deal with this new system, and, frankly, they fill out [required paperwork]  very rapidly because they don’t have time,” Champeaud said. “You have to fill out so many things for each student that it’s impossible. We’ve got classes with 36 students. I’ve got seven classes with 36 students, so that would take hours.”

Champeaud worries that the time-consuming paperwork imposed on the teachers could affect the fairness of the admissions process, as some teachers may simply not have the time or be unwilling to complete the necessary forms for each of their students. As a result, some students will find themselves with incomplete profiles while others will be admitted simply because they had a teacher who was able to help them.

“[The law]  could…break another rule, which the French are very attached to, [which is]  equality,” Champeaud said. “It means that some people who deserve to go won’t go and others who don’t will.”

“The idea of the letter of motivation in #Parcoursup is to think about the process of education that allows students to remain confident in themselves and to succeed. #LaMatinaleLCI”. Source: Frédérique Vidal, French Minister of Higher Education.

In the original draft of the law, students applying to public universities through the new admissions process would receive one of three answers: “yes,” “no,” or “yes, but.” The “yes, but” option meant that less qualified candidates would not be rejected outright; rather, they would receive a conditional offer requiring them to complete additional, remedial coursework to ensure that they have the competencies required to succeed at university. Due to the limited number of seats, some students might also be placed on an indefinite waitlist until a place in the department of their choosing opens up. According to Champeaud, the lawmakers were so unclear on what exactly the “yes, but” option would entail that they chose to postpone its implementation, meaning that students applying in 2018 face only two possibilities: yes or no.

The proposed education reforms have elicited widespread criticism and protests from students and faculty, with the National Union of Higher Education (SNESUP) arguing that the French government should focus instead on increasing funding to address the universities’ inability to cope with increasing student populations. Many universities across France, such as Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne University and University of Bordeaux-Montaigne have already announced their refusal to use the new selection process in the 2018-2019 academic year.

Among prospective students, however, some have welcomed the changes to higher education. For example, some seniors at the Fernand Deguin School in Merignac where Champeaud teaches support the new system.

“But, these students are very good students,” Champeaud said. “So they have very good grades, etc. These are the best students in my high school. That tells me that there will be people pleased with the system, but, again, it will be those who are well-prepared.”

Thus, the more selective application process could expose imbalances within the student body, rewarding those who have the means and connections to successfully navigate the applications process and disadvantaging those who do not.

Some university students are fighting against the potential unfairness and unequal access that Champeaud fears could result from the law. Beginning in early March, university students across the country, in cities such as Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Rennes, began occupying university buildings to protest the selectivity rules.

This article is part one of a two-part Caravel series about French education reforms and ongoing student protests. Part two, which discusses the student occupation of the University of Bordeaux, can be found here.

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